Modi’s challenge is to navigate US and Chinese demands

Delhi needs to assure regional states of its reliability not only as an economic and political partner but also as a security provider, writes Harsh Pant

These are exhilarating times in India. An old political order underpinned by the supremacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family is crumbling while a new order is gradually taking shape. The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi’s leadership has transformed the political landscape of India almost beyond recognition.

For a democratic system to remain vibrant and dynamic, such transitions are essential. In fact, most mature democracies do see such transitions on a periodic basis. In India, for a whole host of reasons, while democracy has flourished, its vitality has been sapping, especially over the past decade. Today, when the Indian electorate has demolished the myth of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic right to rule, it can safely be concluded that democracy has taken a turn for the better.

No wonder that India’s neighbours and other regional states are trying to assess the implications of the dramatic transformation in Indian polity. They have their own expectations from a government that will not be dependent on coalition partners to survive and will be capable of taking decisive actions if need be. Most significantly, Mr Modi will be his own man, capable of shaping the trajectory of Indian foreign policy significantly.

The decision to invite members of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation to the swearing-in ceremony of the new government has been a great beginning, underscoring the resolve of the government to embed India firmly within the South Asian regional matrix. The fact that all of India’s neighbours in South Asia and the wider Asian region have reached out to Mr Modi also augurs well for the new government.

The most significant foreign policy challenge for New Delhi in the coming years will be dealing with the most important geopolitical event of our time – the rise of China. Despite an obsession among the Indian foreign policy elite with everything Chinese, it is not at all evident if New Delhi has learnt to think strategically about China and all that its rapid ascendance in the global hierarchy implies.

With Mr Modi now at the helm, it is being suggested that his warmth will be reserved for those who went out of the way to accommodate him when he was being hounded domestically and globally. Countries like Japan, Israel and China, for example, welcomed him during those years when the West shunned him and the US revoked his visa under an obscure law. There has even been speculation about the reasons behind Mr Modi taking a long time to mention the congratulatory call from President Barack Obama or a tweet from Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr Modi has travelled to China five times, more than to any other nation, and he has been visibly impressed by China’s economic success. Some in China have welcomed Mr Modi as prime minister. The state-run Global Times has argued that “ties between China and India may come closer under Mr Modi’s leadership”. It goes on to suggest that “the West has adapted to an India with a weak central government in the past decades” and now with Mr Modi in the saddle “it is afraid that a strongman like Russian president Vladimir Putin will make India really strong and build the country into a challenger to the West economically and politically”. Others in China have said Mr Modi will take Sino-Indian ties to new heights, even underscoring that his “governance style and philosophy are very close to Chinese practices”.

Yet Mr Modi remains a quintessential nationalist looking to raise India’s profile on the global stage. China’s behaviour in recent years has been troubling for India and caution is likely to be the hallmark of Mr Modi’s outreach to the country. Addressing an election rally in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China, Mr Modi under­lined that Beijing would have to shed “its expansionist policies and forge bilateral ties with India for the peace, progress and prosperity of both nations”.

Despite his personal grudge against the US, Mr Modi will recognise, if he has not already, that the challenges India faces with a domestically fragile Pakistan, political uncertainty in Afghanistan, instability around India’s periphery, and an ever more assertive China cannot be managed without a productive US-India relationship. As a pragmatist, he cannot ignore the reality that strong ties with the US will play in sustaining his vision of an economically advanced and militarily robust India. His priorities will certainly be domestic but a conducive external environment is essential for achieving his highly ambitious domestic agenda.

At a time when China has alienated most of its neighbours with its aggressive rhetoric and actions, India also has a unique opportunity to expand its profile in the region and work proactively with like-minded states to ensure stability.

To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India will have to do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner. India would not only like greater economic integration with the fastest growing region in the world but would like to challenge China on its periphery. But India will have to do much more to emerge as a serious player. Delhi needs to assure regional states of its reliability not only as an economic and political partner but also as a security provider.

As the regional balance of power changes there will be new demands on India that can be fulfilled only by a productive partnership with the US.

How Mr Modi navigates this tricky terrain between the US and China will define, in large part, the success or failure of his diplomacy.

Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King’s College London

Published: May 24, 2014 04:00 AM


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